With a keen eye to the future, Jeff Worstell knows that beating the crowd is crucial to becoming a leader. His ability to make key commitments before the competition gets around to it also helps him as Cargill Meat Solutions’ vice president of live production and procurement in the pork division.

Raising feeder pigs as a youngster on a small farm in southern Missouri set the course for Jeff ’s career in pork production. He attended the College of the Ozarks, followed by stints in the seed-corn business and with DeKalb swine genetics before starting his career with Cargill as a field manager in 1990. In 2003,

Jeff became responsible for all Cargill live-hog production and later picked up responsibilities for Cargill’s pork procurement operations.

Jeff uses his extensive pork production experience in his daily decision-making process at Cargill. Add in a knack for being the first to arrive, and you have an unbeatable combination.

When not at work, Jeff ’s time is devoted to his wife and family, including two sons, 13 and 14 years old, who keep him busy with baseball, football and other outdoor activities.

Q: Give us some background on Cargill Pork.

A: We process about 9.5 million to 10 million hogs annually, of which Cargill Pork supplies about 25 percent. Our two major processing plants are located in Beardstown, Ill., and Ottumwa, Iowa. The sow herd runs between 115,000 and 120,000 head. We don’t own bricks and mortar. We’re all contract and work with about 440 farms that are family-run businesses in Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Illinois and Oklahoma. We’re in the business of families feeding families.

Q: How has Cargill Pork changed in the past decade?

A: Six years ago, live production and pork processing were stand-alone businesses. The two have since been merged to become Cargill Pork. It was a major change, but we found that it improved our chain decisions as we can make them faster and more efficiently with a better outcome throughout the chain. It has also helped our premium brand program teams be more successful by having the supply side truly understand what the customer needs. As a result, the customer’s expectations can be met quickly and efficiently.

Q: What changes do you foresee in the next decade?

A: Cargill will continue being a leader in animal health and animal welfare. We will continually adopt plant automation where and when it is appropriate. There will likely be fewer retail customers in the future due to further consolidation.

Q: Cargill Pork has eight critical animal-welfare assurance goals. Why did Cargill develop those specific goals?

A: It is about doing the right thing and about doing what our customers want and demand. Animal welfare has become a systematic approach for Cargill, each day and for each animal. We understand the importance of animal health and animal well-being.

Cargill adopts initiatives such as animal well-being before the issue gets in the public eye. We have employees dedicated to animal well-being and its continuous improvement. We share this knowledge and experience within our production system and with our suppliers to maintain our industry-leading position in this key area.

Q: What’s the “payoff” for the company and the product?

A: We receive comments and feedback from our customers that Cargill is in a leadership role in environmental sustainability and animal welfare. For Cargill, those things have become engrained in our culture. Our animal-welfare standards are critical for our products conforming to Cargill quality.

Our customers demand that producers and packers deliver on our promises, especially in the areas of sustainable agriculture, animal welfare and environmental initiatives.

Q: How are you marketing Cargill Pork’s animal well-being stance to customers?

A: We present our animal-welfare programs, social responsibility and sustainability initiatives to our customers such as Wal-Mart, McDonald’s and Wendy’s so they can in turn pass the word along to their consumers. Personally, I am much more involved in meetings with our customers than I was in the past because they are more interested in production standards and animal handling throughout the production process.

We also have a director of animal welfare and husbandry. Many of our retail customers send auditors to our operations and facilities to monitor our processes and observe how animals are handled. If we aren’t performing to their standards, it will affect their buying decisions.

Q: Cargill Pork only accepts animals from PQA Plus-certified producers and TQA-certified haulers; why?

A: The pork industry should be very proud of what has been accomplished in the area of animal welfare, and the Pork Quality Assurance Plus and Transport Quality Assurance programs play a key role. Both programs are huge benefits to the entire industry and set the standard for animal care and transportation. If the pork industry wants to set high expectations among consumers, animal well-being must be a priority for the entire production chain.

Q: What is the packer’s role in animal handling?

A: The packer is the linchpin of the production chain — the person in the middle. All packers follow American Meat Institute’s recommendations and regulatory guidelines. I believe packers in general are doing a good job.

Also, all producers must realize that their role in animal handling is very important. It ultimately affects the product quality.

Q: Several years ago, Cargill Pork committed to group gestation-sow housing; why?

A: As Wayne Gretzky says, “skate to where the puck is going.” Our customers are very interested in this subject and are asking about our efforts. About 50 percent of our growers are using group gestation housing. There are definitely challenges along the way. We’ve been through the learning curve and know how to manage these systems effectively. Our growers look to us for guidance because we’re in this together; we both have a vested interest.

Q: What other programs does Cargill Pork have in place?

A: Cargill Pork maintains rescue trailers throughout our grower areas to respond to animal-transport accidents — even those accidents that may not involve Cargill animals. We also track driver performance, which feeds into our driver recognition program.

Q: You have video monitoring at plants; what have you learned from that?

A: Knowledge is key, and Cargill has employed in-plant video monitoring for several years as part of our systematic approach to animal well-being. It’s a verification tool to gauge our performance and processes, and plays an important role in our continuous improvement.

Q: What are Cargill’s pork products/brands?

A: Tender Choice, Sterling Silver Highly Marbled, Sterling Silver Enhanced and Stoneside, as well as Excel Fresh Meats are some of our brands. In addition, Cargill Pork is a major supplier of all-natural pork products. For that market, we produce “Good Nature Pork,” which is our process-verified, crate-free, all-natural product. Those animals receive no antibiotics or growth promotants ever and are fed vegetarian diets.

Cargill produces the hogs for the Good Nature program because of the special attention necessary for the stringent requirements. We see it as a niche market but feel there’s potential for double-digit growth in the brand. We also produce White Marble Farms and Butcher’s Block Reserve for Sysco (foodservice company).

Q: What are the pork industry’s top challenges in the next five to 10 years?

A: Free trade will continue to be a challenge as will food-safety issues. As the consumer becomes more and more removed from the farm, education will continue being a great challenge for the industry.

For producers, making key changes in the production sector, before they are forced to, will be an on-going challenge.

Q: What is the industry’s greatest strength/weakness?

A: The ability to produce safe, high-quality, low-cost pork is a great strength. The United States produces the safest, highest-quality pork products in the world.

Pork’s limited menu presence is a weakness. Too many people still want to overcook pork and we need to change that.

Q: What advice would you offer pork executives?

They must work together to drive consumer education that creates demand for pork. Make sure there are people in your operation who are taking active roles in (National Pork Board’s) Operation Main Street. Don’t expect that others will take care of this extremely important function.

Also, pork executives must adopt a risk-management strategy to have a sustainable business. They must have employees on their team with the hedging skills and capabilities necessary to continue surviving in times of such extreme economic volatility.